Courtesy of the artist
Early career survey exhibitions are a rarity. If an artist is fortunate to receive the honour of a survey exhibition from a public gallery or museum during their life time, it often occurs late in life. More often than not, they occur posthumously and when the artist is deceased (the other kind of ‘late’). Bathurst based Wiradyuri artist Amala Groom is a leading voice of the current generation of early career Aboriginal artists. A great deal of attention and momentum has accelerated her creative path, and for good reason. Curated by Bathurst Regional Art Gallery Director Sarah Gurich, RE: Union comprises five performance videos and three photographic works that span five years and are unified by Groom’s engagement with self-portraiture, spirituality, language, ritual and identity politics from an Aboriginal perspective. Her work is deeply committed to interrogating the colonial project and its impacts on collective and individual subjectivity.
A conceptual artist working across multiple media forms, Groom’s body of work situates her within an expansive history of Australian performance art. Over the last two decades as digital video technologies have evolved, the ‘performance video’ has become accessible and somewhat ubiquitous. Working in film and/or video, Aboriginal artists including Tracey Moffatt, Destiny Deacon, Michael Riley, Richard Bell, Julie Gough, r e a, Brook Andrew and Christian Thompson to varying degrees incorporate performance and the moving image in their work. Given most have worked across media with photography often (but not always) the primary form, they are not often categorically aligned to Australian performance art histories. Early histories of performance art in Australia tend to privilege practices originating from ephemeral contexts of ‘liveness’. In contrast, performances made solely for the camera and without an audience are a ubiquitous contemporary art phenomena today. Groom’s practice has surfaced within this tradition and affirmed a rightful place within Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal performance art contexts.
The most recent work in this survey, The Union (2019), is her most ambitious work to date. Drawing upon lived experiences and Aboriginal ceremonies, The Union was commissioned for The National 2019: New Australian Art at Carriageworks. A red rope representing the miwi (spirit) connects a network of gum trees in a forest near where Groom lived at the time in mid-western New South Wales. Adopting the persona of a displaced and distressed bride, Groom uses the umbilical like rope to navigate and decolonise Country in a performance that reimagines the wedding ritual as a balancing act between the physical and astral body, where the ‘marriage of self’ is the primary relationship.
The figure of the bride is tied to the colonial imaginary. Imposing non-Aboriginal bridal symbolism in this context highlights how the marriage contract subjugates women as a form of property exchange between men. The heterosexual conception of marriage becomes another layer of colonisation for women’s identities under Western patriarchy. What is united in The Union, are Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal understandings of spiritual and ritual knowledge and practice as an existential counterpoint to colonial obliteration. As the performance concludes, her gaze breaks the fourth wall, piercing the viewer and implied captor. In this moment, Groom meets her ‘groom’ before fleeing further into the bush. A quest for spiritual awakening invoked as the performance concludes. As Coby Edgar points out in her essay on The Union, the final stage of enlightenment in Buddhist teaching is called the ‘Amala’, a state of pure consciousness divested of human trauma. At its basis then, The Union is the artist’s most autobiographical work to date as it literally embodies and calls her name, Amala Groom, into being. A bride stripped barefoot, not by her bachelors or any such groom, but by a higher, unshackling power.
Groom intends The Union to be an iterative project called Raised by Wolves, whereby over time she will perform this action on Country at other significant locations around Australia, for a series of future video works.
The significance of this ongoing gesture is that, while bound to the time-based medium of performance video, it postulates time as unending, an eternal return. As the bride disappears into the bush, she will reappear again and again, to reanimate this ritual of constant inner discovery.
The retaliation against disappearance is a recurring theme in Groom’s work. The Invisibility of Blackness (2014) and its latter companion piece, The Visibility of Blackness (2018) are powerful statements affirming her Wiradyuri matrilineal heritage. The Invisibility of Blackness sees Groom positioned against a void like black background and facing the camera. In less than a minute, she gazes directly at the viewer and asserts her Wiradyuri lineage by evoking her mother, grandmother and great grandmothers spanning nine generations. Performed in English as a spoken word affirmation, this work ironically asserts her identity and history using the de facto ‘national’ language used since European settlement. In another work, Every Human Emotion in 2 Minutes (2015) Groom dons British navy regalia for a performance where she dispenses with English, instead chanting in her traditional ‘mother tongue’ to the Wiradyuri and the Kuringgai/Cammeraygal ancestors on whose land she performs.
The spoken monologue of The Invisibility of Blackness is recorded with a slight echo in her voice, as if the sound has bounced off the walls. This echoing of sound poignantly reflects a spectre of ancestors conversing across time, performing intergenerational communion. With each maternal figure summoned, the lighting design is dimmed, rendering each generation darker than the one before. As her great-great-great-great-great-great-grandmother is named, light becomes a metaphor for race as the sequence finishes in complete darkness – a simultaneous reminder of colonial erasure and invisibility, as much as it acknowledges ancestral elders, calling the past into the present, darkness into light.
The Visibility of Blackness ‘remakes’ its predecessor as a two-channel version, where Groom doubles her presence. Side by side, the two Grooms rupture linear time by commingling maternal heredity: one channel moving from past to future and the other from future to past. The work commences in complete darkness and becomes illuminated gradually before it reverses and returns back to black. The vocal echo heard in the earlier work is intensified by Groom’s body-doubling in The Visibility of Blackness. Her spoken word performance is like a round (or infinite canon) sung by multiple voices working together and apart.
An amplification of voices speaking in unison characterises Does She Know the Revolution is Coming? (2017). This multi-channel video was an early sign of Groom’s artistic ambition and her skill as an inventive orator of contemporary Aboriginal identity politics. Groom performs six different characters wearing glamorous cocktail party attire with champagne glass in hand. Each face the camera and relay an actual conversation that took place between Groom and the wife of a former Prime Minister in her palatial New York townhouse during a splashy soiree. The work unpacks the complexities of ownership and authority regarding Aboriginal art and culture. With acerbic wit, Groom relays a conversation where cultural capital is exercised through the collecting of Aboriginal art. Where the accumulation of assets and wealth is demonstrated through participation in a Western art market that globally trades authentic ‘primitive’ signifiers of Indigeneity as symbols of status. Central to the narrative is the former Prime Minister’s wife’s pride in her ownership of work by Anmatyerre artist, Emily Kame Kngwarreye: “Have you seen my Emily?” she asks. You can imagine countless other variations to this conversation substituting other artists made commodifiable in their lifetime or beyond: Have you seen my Ben? Or, Have you seen my Del? may well be white inversions of the same principle in today’s contemporary art market.
In 2020, Does She Know the Revolution is Coming? was acquired by Artbank, the Australian Commonwealth Government artist support program that acquires a collection of work for lease. For a work that problematises the ownership of Aboriginal art, it is ironic that Groom’s art is now ‘owned’ by a collection founded in 1980 under the Fraser government for the express purpose of furnishing public servants’ offices with signifiers of cultural capital. Later branching out to a more diverse clientele, anyone can lease from Artbank and the point of purchase (lease) often rests on the artwork being brand aligned with the corporate politics of the party leasing the work on a temporary basis, subject to renewal and artwork turnover. Prime Ministers and their wives can rent from Artbank, anybody can. Aboriginal art in a politician’s office therefore becomes a face value gesture of support for our First Peoples, often contradicting real world policy and decision making exercised against a backdrop of ongoing poverty and social injustice for our Aboriginal communities. Have you rented my Amala?
With RE: Union, Amala Groom asserts her place as an important early career artist of her generation. In a relatively short time span, her performative practice has engaged with the histories and politics of her past and present, signalling a promising creative future. Deeply connected to the contemporary Australian art world ecosystem, Groom also makes an important contribution in the regions, communities, and Country. RE: Union reunites, in her region, a host of self-portraits which reflect a little bit of us all.
Courtesy of the artist
Catalogue essay for Amala Groom's RE: Union at Bathurst Regional Art Gallery, 17 October – 6 December 2020.
Published by Bathurst Regional Art Gallery in 2020.